Encores at NY City Center - Feb. 2006

Review by John Kenrick

Marin Mazzie is a goddess. But more on her in a moment.

In the midst of an artistically bankrupt season, Encores brings us Kismet, that glorious bit of musical kitsch that was caught Broadway off-guard in 1953, winning the Tony for Best Musical and permanently ticking off darn near every critic who ever had to sit through it. But the general public loved it, and quite frankly so do I. Seeing it on stage for the first time in almost two decades was like meeting an old friend -- albeit one who is looking a bit shabbier than you remembered.

The romantic Broadway operetta had faded away in the late 1920s, but Kismet brought it back in a final blaze of campy glory, doling out shameless cascades of melody and romance to "a world to prone to be prosaic" -- keeping its tongue firmly in cheek along most of the way, and a bevy of underdressed chorus girls on display at every possible moment. Luther Davis turned Edward Knoblock's popular play into a polished libretto, and songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted Alexander Borodin's classical melodies into irresistible showtunes. Here was entertainment on a grand scale that aimed for the heart, and to hell with reason. It was all wildly over the top, with silly plot twists, clich├ęd characters and recycled tunes, and audiences lapped it up as Kismet became a longtime staple in the musical stage repertoire.

Such vintage spoofery requires performers and an audience that knows what the fun is all about. Encores certainly has the right audience, and in most cases had the right performers as well. Director Lonny Price staged the proceedings with clarity and added some fine touches. But someone made the lamentable decision to put the full cast in costume, and the budget limitations dictated by a one-week run led to some tacky results. With the sole exception of Marin Mazzie's Lalume (more on her in a moment), everyone looked like they were clad for a rather desperate junior high school production. So a note to the intrepid Encores production team -- if you can't costume a show properly, why bother? Concert attire with a few creative accessories would have made better -- and far classier -- sense.

Broadway legend Paul Gemignani made his debut as Encores musical director with this production, and led the proceedings with a deft hand -- but he might want to speak to someone about the sound system, which made his superb 44 piece orchestra sound tinny and distant at all the worst possible moments.

There was nothing tinny or distant about Brian Stokes Mitchell, who played the wily street poet Hadj with reasonable brio and filled the house with that dark velvet baritone that has made him one of Broadway's top leading men. His rendition of the treacherous tongue-twister "Gesticulate" was one of the highlights of the production. Marcy Harriell was a sweet Marsinah, and handsome Danny Gurwin cut a fine figure as the Wazir, but neither of these talented performers had the vocal battery power required to launch ballads like "Stranger in Paradise" or "And This is My Beloved" into the stratosphere.

Danny Rutigliano's diminutive stature and mock-balletic dance moves made him a comically effective Wazir, and Broadway veterans Randall Duk Kim (as Omar Khayyam) and the always delightful Tom Aldredge (as the bandit Jawan) also provided some well-earned laughs. Special kudos to Liza Bugarin, Michelle Camaya and Sumi Maeda, the only performers I have ever seen make sense of the three enigmatic Princesses of Ababu. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo turned them into escapees from The King & I's "Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet," and by jingo it worked.

And then, there was Marin Mazzie as Lalume, the Wazir's bored and randy "wife of wives." What a glorious triumph! Returning to a role she first played in high school, Mazzie wowed the audience with a no holes barred performance, making the most of every sexy twist and turn this outrageous character has to offer. She was abetted by a humpy chorus of half-naked chorus boys who carried her litter or locked limbs to form a human chaise lounge that she rested on with hilarious sang-froid. This voluptuous woman strutted, swayed and stretched her way through every line and note, working her dazzling golden costume with the assurance of a stripper, and hurling out high notes with the aplomb of a Metropolitan Opera veteran. This Kismet belonged to Marin Mazzie, confirming her place in the pantheon of Broadway's musical comedy deities. Wicked, detectible and brilliant, she is a theatrical goddess.

I applaud Encores for bringing Kismet back into the spotlight, and if some aspects of the production were not up to Marin Mazzie's divine standard, we will get over it. Thank heaven we got a chance to hear this wondrous score again! And come to think of it, how many productions can say they'll be remembered for the moment when a deity was enthroned -- on a chaise made of live dancers?

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